Can you tell us a little about the Taiwanese Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) and its work?
The TAEDP was founded in 2003 after Wu Jiazhen and I met. At the time, we were working for different organisations but we were both looking to help innocent people sentenced to death. That is how the idea of a Taiwanese NGO against the death penalty was born. It wasn’t easy to begin with. Until 2007 our work was entirely based on volunteers. Then we managed to hire one person (me!). Today, we have three employees in the organisation, not including part-time staff. Wu Jiazhen takes care of everything to do with victims and education about abolition; another person devotes their energies to ongoing cases in Taiwan. I look after advocacy work and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty in particular…and also anything no one else wants to do! [laughs]. At the moment, the educational work is most important for us. In particular, we are trying to make sure the voices of the victims of prisoners sentenced to death are heard. A lot of people think that opposing the death penalty means opposing the victims of crimes punishable by death but that’s not true. We support those people too, just as we support the families of prisoners sentenced to death who we also consider to be victims.
You are increasingly directing your work at lawyers…
That’s right. The death penalty is still a reality in Taiwan which means new sentences are still being handed down. That makes our work very different from yours in France where you devote a lot of time to reinforcing abolition. In Taiwan, it is about directly fighting the reality of those sentences. That’s why we’re developing training projects for lawyers and some of their clients. If judges can stop handing down death sentences because of these projects, our work will be made easier. For example, in 2015 there wasn’t a single death sentence in Taiwan. No death sentences at all. And from 2016 to now, only one death sentence. Training lawyers also means we can meet new partners, just as our educational work has made it possible for us to meet teachers and involve them in the struggle against the death penalty.
What are you doing to raise awareness among the public?
This is another priority for us: to communicate with as many people as possible. In 2014, we conducted an opinion poll across the country from which we took some very precious information. For example, we discovered that if you suggest an alternative punishment to the death penalty to a large number of Taiwanese people they tend to review their position on capital punishment. Above all, we took from this poll the conviction that we must give people information. Often, it is enough to show them the reality of the death penalty – the danger it represents, the fallibility of our judicial system, the innocent people executed – for them to change their minds. There are many ways to raise the subject. For example, instead of asking “should we keep the death penalty or not?”, you can ask “would you prefer to use the death penalty without the possibility of parole or life imprisonment with the possibility of parole?” Often, it is enough to give people other options for support for the death penalty to drop. The next stage of our educational work will involve a round of debates across the country to consider alternatives and other solutions.
What will you do now?
We’ve decided to adopt a very local approach and go to all the towns in the country. We hope to organise one or two discussions at each stage, using documentation to encourage people to contribute and exchange opinions. Through this work, we want to show people that the Government is not sufficiently engaged with the issue of the death penalty. In the absence of real political will to organise a national debate on the death penalty, we have decided to do it ourselves. It’s not enough to say “We signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but we can’t abolish the death penalty because of public opinion…” It’s too easy to stop there – what is needed is action!
What is the position of Taiwan’s current Government as regards the death penalty?
That’s a difficult question. We have a relatively new President, Tsai Ing-wen. She is from the Progressive Democratic Party which is supposed to be more progressive than the Kuomingtang which was in power before. But so far we haven’t seen any signs of open-mindedness. Human rights violations continue. For example, during the campaign Tsai Ing-wen showed signs that she was in favour of gay marriage but she seems to have gone backwards on this issue since being in power. My personal opinion is that we have a more progressive government than before but that this party, once in control, has become more conservative. And of course the issue of the death penalty remains very sensitive. In Taiwan, a president generally governs for two mandates. So numerous people ask us to be patient, to wait until the end of their last mandate, not to put the president in a difficult position…but I don’t believe it, I think that’s stonewalling. And whatever happens we will continue our work. Fortunately, there are other signs of hope. Half of the 15 judges at the Constitutional Court have just changed and today there are more progressives in that institution. Revision of the Constitution remains unlikely but the new situation can help us for some death penalty cases when we appeal.
Today, all eyes are on the Philippines and President Duterte who is seeking to reintroduce the death penalty. Does that worry Taiwanese abolitionists?
I think that the general idea in Taiwan is that the Philippines President is crazy [laughs]. Of course, some people like him and would like to follow his example. But most are shocked by the human rights violations which are increasing over there. So no, the Philippines do not represent a great concern for us in Taiwan. Our concern is more Japan and the United States. What is Trump going to do? Of course we are in Asia and TAEDP is interested in other Asian countries but the Philippines are not able to put pressure on our Government. Unlike Japan and the United States…